Rockingham board reverses controversial school vote

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BELLOWS FALLS — The Rockingham School Board has reverse its controversial vote regarding in-school instruction for the coming year, meaning that all students in Rockingham, Grafton, Athens and Westminster will be going to school for in-person instruction only two days a week for the first six weeks of school.

Both the Rockingham School Board and the Bellows Falls Union High School Board voted overwhelmingly Monday night to adopt the so-called hybrid plan, where the student body will be divided into two groups, with one group going to school on Monday and Tuesday and the other on Thursday and Friday, with Wednesday a remote learning day for all while the school buildings are cleaned.

Gov. Phil Scott had delayed the start of school by a week last month to give schools more time to prepare after the abrupt shut down of schools in March due to the pandemic; all schools in the state will now open Sept. 8.

The Rockingham vote was the most dramatic, since it represented a reversal from a controversial vote last week when the Rockingham board opted for full five-day in person instruction. The majority of the board rejected the plan of a task force made up of teachers and administrators laying out a safe plan to return to school. That vote was 3-2 (prompting longtime chairman of the board, Rick Holloway, to resign in frustration), but on Monday, it was 4-0 to adopt the hybrid plan.

Last week, the Windham Northeast Supervisory Union and the Windham Northeast Elementary Union School Board both adopted the hybrid plan, putting pressure on Rockingham to follow suit.

Parents still have the option to keep their children home and adopt another learning plan, whether it is homeschooling or remote learning.

With more than 50 people watching via Zoom video teleconferencing Monday night, the Rockingham board said that a two-day a week, in-person schedule is safer for students and their teachers but that the board's goal is to get all students in the classroom full time.

The Rockingham board oversees the town's two elementary schools - Saxtons River and Central, as well as Bellows Falls Middle School.

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Superintendent Christopher Pratt said the plan will be reviewed on a weekly basis, if not more often, to facilitate the return to five-day-a-week instruction.

School Board member Jason Terry proposed the change in education strategy, saying he had visited a Central Elementary School classroom and was convinced that reducing the size of the class was necessary.

Acting Chairman George Smith had started the meeting with a plea that the board members work together with the school community. "Our goal is to work together to get the students in school .some way, somehow," he said. He said it was time for everyone to "hit the re-set button."

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"It's nearly impossible to make everyone happy," said Smith, while noting that the board knew how most people and teachers felt.

Director Priscilla Lambert, a strong proponent of the five-day-a-week plan, said parents had tough decisions to make.

"My heart goes out to parents," she said. She apologized for what she said might have been interpreted as "too firm and too strident" for what she believed was best for the students.

"Children need to be in school," Lambert, a retired teacher, said.

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That didn't stop the four remaining board members from debating whether they needed to "reconsider" or "rescind" their vote from last week. Terry's motion calling for last week's vote to be rescinded passed unanimously among the four remaining board members.

At the Bellows Falls Union High School Board meeting on Monday, the board adopted the hybrid plan without controversy, but bogged down in a discussion about a suggestion from the Windham Northeast Education Association - the teachers' union - to start their preparation for school a week earlier than the previous plan of Sept. 1.

Principal Christopher Hodsden said it amounted to shifting some of the teachers' in-service days to the beginning of the school year.

BFUHS Director Stephen Fine of Athens said he was in favor of the proposal, and that it wouldn't cost the school district any additional funds.

The request from the teachers' union to start preparation a week earlier, on Aug. 25, will also have to be considered by the other schools in the supervisory union.

David Clark, chairman of the WNESU, said he believed his board could meet in emergency session soon to approve the teachers' request.

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